In this series ahead of Tokyo 2020, we will take a look at athletes who have been an integral part of the Olympic Games folklore over the past century and more.

Jesse Owens: More than just a superstar


  • Olympic Medals: 4 Gold
  • Olympic Games participations: 1
  • Only Olympic Games: Berlin 1936
  • Year of Birth: 1913

Owens travelled to Berlin to take part in the 1936 Olympics – an event overseen by Adolf Hitler, which the new German chancellor hoped would profile the supremacy of the Aryan ‘master race’. 

It wasn’t to be: the African-American Owens stole the show. He won the 100m in 10.30 seconds, the 200m in 20.70 seconds, and then the long jump, with an impressive leap of 8.06 metres – apparently after getting some advice about his run-up from a German competitor, Luz Long. His fourth gold came in the 4x100m relay, in which Owens formed a key part of the team that set a new world record of 39.80 seconds.

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James Cleveland Owens. One of the greatest. As his USA teammate Archie Williams later said, “I would say he is the superman of our team.

It’s a shame that an athlete as great as Owens could participate in just one Olympic Games.

Owens exploded the Nazi-propagated myth of Aryan racial superiority when he won four athletics gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the nose of Adolf Hitler.

Just a year earlier the African-American had set five world records and equalled a sixth in the space of 45 minutes in Ann Arbor, including a long jump of 8.13m that would stand unsurpassed for 25 years. It would be dubbed the “greatest 45 minutes in the history of sport.”

In Berlin, he won the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump, setting three world records and reportedly prompting Hitler to storm out, though the “Buckeye Bullet” later said the Fuehrer had waved to him. It remains one of the many myths associated with those Games and Owens.

Another incredible nugget in the Owens story is the timely advice he received from German athlete Luz Long during the qualification for the long jump event. A piece of advice that helped Owens reach the final after a couple of foul attempts and eventually win gold. “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens would say later. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”

A friendship that triumphed over racism: Luz Long, Jesse Owens and a lesson for humanity

More than just the stories and urban legends from those days in Berlin, it is undeniable that Owens had an impact that went beyond just that of an athlete competing at the Olympics. His is a story that inspires even in the 21st century.

The grandson of slaves, Owens was snubbed by his own president when Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to greet him, a customary honour for returning Olympic champions.

“I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either,” said Owens.

“When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” Owens said of the racial segregation that existed in the US at the time. “I couldn’t live where I wanted.”

Owens, who died in 1980, has a street and a school named after him in Berlin.


Jesse Owens at the Olympic Games

Games Finish Discipline Event
Berlin 1936 Gold 100 metres Athletics
Gold 200 metres Athletics
Gold 4 x 100 metres Relay Athletics
Gold Long Jump Athletics

(With IOC & AFP inputs)